Popular Food and Eating on a Budget in Spain

By Lesley Postle

One of the reasons why Spain is so high up on my list of possible retirement destinations is the food. Although perhaps not as famous as French cuisine, the Spanish have a very rich and delicious food culture.

The Spanish eat their main meal at lunchtime and tend to have rather long lunch breaks, sometimes followed by a siesta. Shops close from around 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. to allow for this extended meal and then stay open until around 8 p.m., although sadly things are slowly changing as businesses want to get more in sync with the rest of the world.

Many Spaniards will eat their main meal of the day at a local restaurant, where there are set menus called a menu del dia (menu of the day), which include a first and second course, a dessert, wine, and coffee. These are really affordable places to eat and if they are full of locals, you can be sure the food will be excellent. The menus are often quite simple and the description on the blackboard outside often consists of just one or two words for each dish. But the actual dishes are always cooked with creativity and passion.

When I first lived in Spain in the late 1990s, a menu del dia in Barcelona was around 1,000 pesetas (around $5.50). Nowadays, it’s about €10 to €15 euros ($11 to $17).

Here’s an example of a typical menu that you’d see on a blackboard outside the local restaurants, with a translation of what you actually get:

Menu del Dia

1° Plato – 1st Course

Salad, usually crisp lettuce, huge red and green tomatoes, and olives. Always a bottle of olive oil and wine vinegar on the table to finish it off.

Beans, usually cooked with crispy bacon.

Sopa de pescado
Fish soup—a wonderful fish broth with lots of prawns or white fish.

Arroz a la Cubana
Rice with tomato sauce and a fried egg on top.

2° Plato – 2nd Course

Chuleta de cordero
Lamb chops, usually served with French fries.

Hake, often in a sauce with peas.

Fried liver, usually with fries.

Stew, often beef stew with potatoes.

Pan, postre y bebida
Bread, dessert, and a drink.

Desserts are usually a simple ice cream, crème caramel, or fruit. Occasionally you’d get musico, which means dried fruit and nuts. A strange name, which came from the days when itinerant musicians would be provided with plates of almonds and raisins to keep them going during their performances. In the old days, you used to get coffee included too, though these days it’s more common to get either dessert or coffee.

Sometimes, on a Friday, you might get paella as part of the menu del dia. The three-course menu is usually only available on weekdays, with restaurants offering more upmarket a la carte choices at the weekend.

Spanish restaurants
Spanish restaurants are sure to impress.

What used to impress me most about these local Spanish restaurants was the incredible skill of the waiters. They were extremely well trained and could do 10 things at once, while carrying on a conversation and making coffee at the same time. The restaurants could be packed with people and only one or two waiters to serve everyone, but you never had to wait long and they were eternally cheerful. Most of the waiters were there for years on end. It was a long-term career for them, not just a holiday job, and they took enormous pride in their work. I never saw any of them write down my order, but they always got it right and after a few visits knew me by name.

In the evening is the time for a tapas crawl. Every town and city and most small villages in Spain will have a bar, with hams hanging from the ceiling and yellowed paintwork from centuries of cigarette smoke, all kinds of colorful bottles lined up behind the bar and a glass cabinet of delicious snacks along the counter. From the simplest of plates of almonds, cheese or jamon serrano (dry-cured Spanish ham), to fried octopus, tiny little anchovies or whitebait in oil, sardines, patatas bravas (fried potatoes in a spicy sauce), and tortilla (potato omelet), there is something to tempt everyone.

Spain is famous for its mouth-watering tapas, with something to please all palates.

The style of the tapas will vary a little from region to region, and often include local sausages, salamis, cheeses, olives, and other delicacies. In times past, tapas were given free when you bought a drink. When I travelled to Andalucia in the 1980s, you’d get a little plate of almonds when you bought a sherry in Jerez de la Frontera, but I think this has mostly died out now and you have to pay for your tapas. These days, a selection of tapas either in one bar or several during the night makes an excellent evening meal.

Catering for yourself is also an absolute joy in Spain, as there are so many incredible covered markets, with a colorful array of fabulous fruits and vegetables, hams, chorizo, fish, game, meat, dried fruits and nuts, herbs, and spices. One of the most famous is La Boqueria in Barcelona, but there are similar markets all over Spain. There are large supermarkets, but it is still more common for the Spanish to get their fresh produce in the markets and small local groceries and it’s much more fun.

Last but not least, we shouldn’t forget the naughty but nice pastries, croissants, pan con chocolate (bread with chocolate), ensaimadas (coil-shaped pastries), and churros (fried doughnuts coated in sugar) that are served with the excellent coffee or hot chocolate for which the Spanish are deservedly well-known.

Churros in Spain
In Spain, desserts like churros are served with fresh coffee.

Definitely a strong incentive to go out for breakfast, even after a late night of crawling the tapas bars.

Eating on a Budget in Spain – Cadiz, Madrid and Seville


By Lori Kullberg

Spain is known for many things; bull fighting, flamenco, beautiful cities and countryside, fantastic beaches, history, ancient architecture, wine, and a strong artistic heritage. Spain is said to be one of the cultural centers of Europe. If that’s not enough to whet your appetite, wait until you try the food. To make it even more appealing, you can eat local fare throughout Spain without breaking the bank.

I have traveled from Madrid to Cádiz and am always amazed at how much I can eat for such little expense. I have one word for you; tapas. The iconic cuisine of these small portion sized dishes filled with everything from fresh seafood to cured meats and aged cheeses will delight your palate for no more than $10 to $15 a day. Tapas is not just eating, it is a cultural activity. They began as a free bar snack to tide patrons over after siesta in the afternoon, before a late dinner. Tapas became so popular that they eventually evolved to being added to regular menus, with each restaurant creating their own unique versions.

Skip Burger King and McDonalds, or any fast-food chain when abroad. Live like a local—sit outside, talk with people, watch people pass by and greet each other, eat the native dishes, and immerse yourself in the non-hurried ways of Spain.

Let’s start with the first meal of the day, breakfast. In Europe, this is kept simple yet satisfying. While in Cádiz, I basked in the morning sun while enjoying café con leche, orange juice, and a jamón y queso (Spanish ham and cheese) bocadillo (sandwich made with Spanish bread) for just $5. Destino in Plaza de San Juan de Dios offers a select breakfast menu with a great view of the large, open plaza.

And how about a beachfront lunch complete with fresh-from-the-ocean seafood? In Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Casa Bigote Restaurant serves up the best langostinos (prawn), corvina (local fish), and boquerones (fresh anchovies) for around $12. Add a glass of sherry, famous in the region, for about $3. This family restaurant dating back 60 years is the best of seafood with a sweeping view of Bajo de Guía beach, the mouth of the Guadalquivir River.

eating on a budget in jerez

A late lunch or dinner can be done in the same tapas manner. In Jerez, I found several nice tapas bars to enjoy sitting outside and nibbling on my small dishes. On a hot day, a cold cerveza (beer), like my favorite, Cruzcampo, can be added for $1 to $3, depending on the size of glass you prefer. La Maceta on Calle Lanceria has camarones (small shrimp) and albondigas (meatballs) for around $6. Cervecería Gorila in Plaza Plateros served me an individual size tortilla with a side of aceitunas (olives) for $6. Bar La Canilla on Calle Largos has delicious ensalada (salad) and gambas al ajillo (shrimp cooked in garlic) for around $7 and is a great place to sit and people watch.

Also in Jerez, in Plaza Plateros, you will find Casa Gabriela. I was a frequent patron of this restaurant, not only because the food is well-priced and delicious, but also for the friendly staff and front row view of flamenco performances that take place in the middle of the plaza streets. You can feast on ensalada rusa (Russian potato salad), patata alioli (lightly fried potatoes covered in a warm, garlic mayonnaise), and albondigas, along with a beer, for only $7. They have many other tapas, as well, and getting two or three will cost about the same.

eating on a budget in seville

In Seville and neighboring Triana, tapas bars are on every street, around every corner. My favorite is el Mero, an indoor/outdoor café at the foot of the Triana Bridge in Plaza del Altozano. There, I enjoyed jamón y queso, tomatoes in a garlic drizzle, shrimp, and a glass of sangria for around $10. The view of the bridge and Guadalquivir River adds immensely to the dining experience.

Also in Seville, near the Las Setas de Sevilla (the “mushrooms of Seville,” a structure with waffle-like wood panels, positioned in a way to act as a canopy and walkway) in the old quarter of Seville, I found a cute little café called Café Al Grano and ate croquetas de jamón (small breaded roll filled with ham), shrimp salad, fried squid, and sautéed pork for $7.

In Madrid I enjoyed ensalada rusa at Lacaña on Calle de Santa Isabel, near the Reina Sofía National Museum. It was authentic, delicious, and very refreshing on a hot Spanish day. This and other various tapas are only $5, including a drink. It was a convenient and pleasant stopover before heading to the museum for a tour.

Another reason to love Spain? You can eat dessert any time of day or night. The ever-popular churros y chocolate (fried-dough pastry with a thick chocolate dipping sauce) can be experienced in any city you visit. I have had them for lunch, a mid-day snack, and for breakfast. Add a café con leche to your order and you will spend maybe $5 or $6 for a very healthy portion. I have been to “churreria’s” in Seville and Jerez and the churros are always made-to-order—hot and fresh. You can’t fully experience Spain without trying this dish.

eating on a budget in madrid

In Spain, there is no rush. That includes your dining experience. People gather for hours to eat and socialize. I never feel like I need to hurry up and leave before I am ready. More often than not, your server will only bring your bill once you have asked for it and not before. Life in Spain happens outdoors, so sit, relax, and enjoy. Whatever your hunger or dietary needs, there are plenty of tapas choices to pick from. And plenty of tapas bars or restaurants to find them. It is humble food for a low cost.

Taste the Spanish nuances in these small dishes and you will experience Spain at its best. Your tummy and your wallet will thank you.

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